User Experience 2001/2002

Originally published on Usability News.

Report back from User Experience 2001/2002 Conference, organised by the Nielsen Norman Group.

The four day conference addressed a wide range of subjects, including content, information architecture, interaction design and usability, and took a decidedly practical, back-to-basics tone with workshops run by leading industry experts including Jeffery Veen, Louis Rosenfeld, Bruce ‘Tog’ Tognazzini and others. Three of the four days were devoted to beginners and advanced workshops, split over two days. All of this took place in a smart hotel venue, with a large main plenary room which certainly conveyed an air of seriousness. Large displays complemented the slide packs each attendees received upon entry for each day. Structuring the day with breaks between each hour long session broke the continuity and may have been a response to prior testing of audiences in which it was found that their attention was not capable of a sustained attack of usability fever for more than an hour at a time!

The main attraction on Tuesday, ‘Web Usability Today’ was a surprise: nearly a full house of over 400 attendees, although numbers inevitably began to slide towards the end of the day. Nielsen deserves the credit that he can still pack ’em in, even after all the recent industry cutbacks and squeezed agency budgets. The audience was mixed, with a large percentage coming from client companies, even though some agencies did manage to send some staff¾but their absence was noticeable. The attendance showed that usability is being taken more seriously, with the overall event making more of an attempt to court nervous clients with practical demonstration of its credibility and cost benefits.

Tuesday’s event began with Nielsen’s talk on the state of usability and the future of the Internet. The themes he covered included where the Internet is evolving and the progress of usability as a practice, and he made a call for a realisation of the cost benefits of usability.

The other presentations on the day complemented Nielsen’s main themes. Marie Tahir, head of strategy at the Nielsen Norman Group, addressed the subject of effective home page design, and Daniel Rosenberg, VP of Development of Oracle’s user interface and usability department, spoke about how Oracle’s applications have evolved into networked, web equivalents which were embracing the growing demands of their clients for networked, scaleable solutions. Nielsen and Tahir used the event to launch Homepage Usability: 50 Websites Deconstructed (, their co-authored book that critiques the usability of 50 homepage designs, and lays down 113 design recommendations.

Nielsen opened the day with his analysis of the future trends for the industry, encouraging better growth. In his ‘Web Usability Today’ session he noted that usability as a profession has grown dramatically especially since the mid nineties, partly due to the growth of the number of new websites and need for better experiences. He argued that the critical factor that would shape the future growth of the Internet would be the development of a ubiquitous payment mechanisms, which will present the challenge of making payment transaction models better integrated into infrastructure of the web.

Although it is his assessment that usability is being better employed in general, he criticised the lack of attention paid to the internationalisation of the Internet, at a time when products were increasingly being used by customers beyond the original countries for which it was created. He noted that the biggest gap between domestic and international usability ratings occurred in customer service and e-commerce projects, where there was a 20% difference. The reasons for this included the limited scope of localised content produced by content management systems, which will only translate language, rather than redesign the interface based on cultural nuances. Examples include right to left reading of text and the thoughtless use of certain colours that have cultural significance.

In a similar vein, he continued his quest for the standardisation of Web design with an updated list of ‘Top-10 Web Design Mistakes of 2001’, and claimed that the ‘#1’ mistake being made in 2001 by designers and business alike was not including pricing on products on e-commerce sites. He argued that this challenges the fundamental reason that people go online for shopping: the ability to compare and research. The other top mistakes for the year’s continued the theme of attacking designers as being the main culprits for bad usability. These included: bad search engine design; non-scalable design which does not factor in new design changes (leaving users to pick up the pieces); un-scalable, fixed font-sizing; unreadable blocks of text which pay little regard to users inherent tendency to scan-read text; lack of attention to polite privacy notices; and the use of flash intros.

Nielsen’s other focus was his growing concern for usability combined with accessibility for the visually impaired. While he demonstrated that the disabled or visually impaired would suffer a three-fold lower usable experience than those users with normal sight, he effectively argued that we need to go beyond complying with the technical application of design accessibility guidelines. He made the case for the continued raising of standards that would mean that although accessible sites may not discriminate against the visually impaired, they would still suffer from bad design mistakes because of their overall poor usability rating. Therefore the priority would still be the pursuing of better usability standards of design. He railed against designers who were not promoting equality with their design solutions by closing the gap between typical users and the visually impaired, who would continue to suffer lower usability even when they use screen magnifiers or text-to-speech readers.

The theme of highlighting design mistakes was continued with Tahir’s talk on homepage design. She continued the theme of the need for the standardisation of interfaces, which lead to the 113 design guidelines that form the conclusion of her and Nielsen’s book. One of her main theses is that design must be functional first, and aesthetic second, and that design should primarily tackle interaction principles and user goals, with graphical design helping users prioritise their decision-making.

Tahir illustrated this thesis with numerous home page examples, including Gateway and Ford which she claimed are less usable because they do not display identifiable company products to the user. She also noted that the design of the Gateway home page suffered from being over-designed and over-branded¾examples of the marketing departments running wild. What Tahir fails to acknowledge is that the role of branding is focused on designing experiences and conveying brand values ¾ consciously talking about everything but the products. While this approach may or may not be desirable, Tahir was oblivious to it and could only comment on whether the user could realise their goal. If Tahir paid more attention to the unique business requirements of each project this would surely provide a better context from which to critique the usability of a home page and of the overall product.

In the last presentation on Tuesday, ‘Calculating Web Usability Return on Investment’, Nielsen concluded that on average clients should expect to spend at least 10% of their project budgets on usability, but in return this could produce cost savings as great as 1000%, as a result of increased productivity and sales. This level of costs savings is even more likely for intranet projects where the amount of time lost with users not being able to find documents or contacts represents a direct expense to the company.

Overall, User Experience 2001/2002 was valuable for both design professionals and clients and the presentations were well received. However the simplistic tone and arrogance for which Nielsen is famous were still there. Surely the real issue for the Internet industry is not the cost benefits of applying usability to projects, but the numerous failures of business models. We have to be realistic in acknowledging that the recent collapses in Internet-related businesses have more do with this than with difficult-to-use interfaces.

Tahir shows a similar arrogance in her expectation that users per se should be able to understand and use any home page which they happen to arrive. One of the key aspects of a user-centric approach is the understanding that different audiences have different needs, and businesses are quite at liberty to segment their audiences and focus on those that matter most to them. While usability is certainly needed in the design process Nielsen and others often emphasise customers’ needs without paying similar attention to the project goals and clients’ needs. With the issue of accessibility Nielsen’s call for equality on the web with equal access to the visually impaired or normal alike has gone beyond design to becoming a moral issue, which is where usability should stop and politics begin. If usability professionals confuse morality with their practice they will lose focus on what they do well, and everyone, including those with disabilities, will be worse off as a result.